It’s a formula we’re all familiar with in science fiction. Humanity sets out for the stars and begins colonizing new planets, bringing Earth customs to a far off galaxy, including the age-old human art of crime. When first sitting down to read Fortuna, the debut novel by Kristyn Merbeth, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 2000’s television cult-favorite Firefly. And in many ways Merbeth’s novel is similar, featuring a ragtag space crew, a few shadowy conspiracies, and a healthy dose of hijinks. Surely, I thought, at the center of this romp would be a charming rogue who’d get into some scrapes, kiss some girls, and use old fashioned ingenuity to win the day.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the protagonist, Scorpia Kaiser (who, to her credit, gets into several scrapes and kisses both girls and boys).
Scorpia Kaiser fails. A lot.
Scorpia is the de facto pilot of the titular ship, Fortuna, and the second eldest in a family of smugglers, led by their imperious mother, Captain Auriga Kaiser. Scorpia desperately wants to become the next captain despite having crippling anxiety, which she self-medicates with inadvisable amounts of alcohol all while playing the fool to mask a lifetime’s worth of parental abuse and roiling self-hatred.
Scorpia’s original sin, as far as she can tell, is that she was born early, one day away from their destination, and as a result has the tenuous legal designation spaceborn. As Merbeth elaborates through deft and meticulously paced exposition, humans have settled the Nova Vita solar system on five distinct planets locked in tidal orbit around a red sun. However, unlike many other science fiction settings, there is no galactic coalition, no benevolent alien societies, and no interplanetary alliances beyond basic trade. Due to a tumultuous history, the planets are deeply distrustful of each other—off-world travel is heavily restricted, planetary citizenship essential, and the only alien presence is the mysterious remnants of a long dead civilization known only as The Primus.
Auriga has used this situation to her advantage, strategically giving birth to her five children on different planets in order to allow her operation access to all of them through their citizenship. However, due to her ill-timed birth, Scorpia’s only home is the family’s run-down ship, leaving her dependent on her mother’s good will lest she be abandoned and arrested as an undocumented immigrant in practically any other location. This makes her bid for leadership all the more dire, and all the more difficult, as she continually falls short of her mother’s expectations.
Scorpia’s brother Corvus, however, has the opposite problem, having been yoked to the planet of his birth. Formerly the eldest of the Kaiser brood and heir presumptive to Auriga’s business, Corvus has spent the last three years in military service on the harsh tundra-encased Titan, which has been trapped in an endless civil war over meager resources. Deeply empathetic and intelligent, Corvus had, until his enlistment, been both Scorpia’s only positive role model and her closest friend. His entry into the war, which neither Scorpia nor her siblings saw coming nor understand, has left him embittered, traumatized, and conflicted about his loyalties, especially now that his mandatory term is coming to an end. As far as Scorpia is concerned, Corvus abandoned their family, and his sudden return could end her claim on Fortuna.
In a clever move (the origin of which Merbeth credits to editor Bradley Englert in the book’s acknowledgements) Fortuna alternates chapters from Scorpia and Corvus’s perspectives, allowing the reader to discover the intricacies of its highly stratified setting from both within and without, as well as the Kaiser family’s conflicting motives. While Scorpia is attempting to transcend her status quo, all Corvus wants is to return to it, and both of them are well aware that any traction they gain is a small concession granted by the systems that organize their universe.
That is, until everything goes to hell.
Scorpia Kaiser tries. A lot.
The majority of Fortuna, which is largely a space adventure with a soupcon of heist comedy thrown in, goes like this: Someone comes up with a plan. Scorpia comes up with her own plan, for what she assures both the reader and herself are totally valid and irreproachable reasons. Scorpia’s plan implodes, taking everyone else down with it.
Scorpia is constantly attempting to rise gloriously from the ashes of her previous blunders, using no small amount of charm and deceit to achieve her own ends. What becomes immediately apparent is that, despite her harsh upbringing, Scorpia’s fatal flaw is that she’s a good person, one who is constantly foiled by her own conscience. She openly admits to not wanting to kill anybody—a scruple she doesn’t share with her mother, Corvus, or even her aggressive younger siblings, the twins Pol and Drom. It makes her attempts to emulate and impress her mother all the more arduous, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by the crew’s reticent engineer and middle child Lyre.
Constantly ping-ponging between drunken bravado and grim determination, Scorpia crashes into the planets she visits (figuratively and literally) like an asteroid of pure chaos. Through her narration, more frantic and volatile than the lachrymose Corvus, we see the well-worn paths of Scorpia’s internal machinery. Merbeth doesn’t shy away from the grasping, half-baked logic behind every quick-fix scheme, the manipulative savvy of someone who knows they can’t fight their way out of a beating, and the constant hungry need to be respected, praised, and comforted in a life that has little of any of those things to offer.
It’s no surprise then, that when Corvus returns, Scorpia’s fragile self-confidence is thrown into freefall. Tasked with an astoundingly lucrative job, the Kaisers return to Titan and reunite with Corvus for the first time in three years. No longer able to play the sensitive caregiver from their childhood, Corvus is all too aware of his outsider status amongst his siblings, and nowhere is that distance felt more than with Scorpia.
The Kaiser children form a constellation of dysfunction and shifting loyalties, all of them orbiting the gravity well that is Auriga, desperate for her approval yet resentful of her hold on them. Once united in the goal of making a better life for their younger siblings at the helm of Fortuna, Corvus and Scorpia now seem destined to live under her thumb and shadow, respectively.
So when the job goes unexpectedly, catastrophically south, the Kaiser children are left to fend for themselves against an entire solar system on the brink of devastating conflict. It suddenly becomes clear that their family’s old power structures will not protect them or the millions of innocent lives now held in the balance.
And it is up to Scorpia to try. Again and again, hoping she gets it right this time.
Scorpia Kaiser cares. A lot.
It is her inability to stop caring that elevates Fortuna from a pleasant diversion into a compelling family drama, and what keeps the exponentially rising stakes from feeling unwieldy. Scorpia might be at odds with her brother and at an impasse with the laws of the galaxy she lives in, but she is at war with her own better nature.
With their mother lost, another of their own in critical condition, and a cataclysmically powerful weapon in their possession, the Kaisers begin a desperate race to somehow shift the stakes in their favor, with Scorpia finally stepping into the leadership role she’s coveted her entire life. And yet, when finally given the opportunity, she chafes at her own attempts at ruthlessness. “Now that I’m in charge of the family, I need to protect them, keep us all together, like she always did. If this makes me a terrible person, if I hate myself for the rest of my life for making this deal, it will be worth it as long as my family is safe. I’ll do what I have to do. Become worse than Momma if I must” (p. 323).
It’s poetic that there are five Kaiser siblings and five planets orbiting Nova Vita. It’s apparent very early on that the planets’ tight borders, harsh environments, and apathy towards cooperation have left all of them precariously teetering on the edge of calamity. The Kaisers are equally unstable, each of them hurting in unique ways and unable to communicate what they need—Scorpia perhaps the most.
Complicating matters further are the escalating tensions between those aforementioned planets, stoked primarily by a xenophobic politician from the planet Gaia, whose administration has been defined by nationalist isolationism and disdain for the other worlds that, ironically, provide the ecologically weak Gaia with the majority of its food. It doesn’t help that, despite relying on each other for trade and a shared human ancestry, the other planets are more than willing to lay the blame of conflict on the easiest target (in this case, battle-scarred Titan), and will just as quickly close their ranks at the hint of foul play. War seems eminent, the fragile interplanetary arrangement has been irreparably ruptured, and the siblings have only scratched the surface of something much more sinister lurking below Gaia’s atmosphere.
“Nobody thinks of the other planets as real, as the people on them as really human.” Scorpia muses, “They don’t understand that no matter how different they look on the surface, it’s all the same shit beneath” (p. 380). The political connotations are unmistakable, and it’s clear that, in addition to the hypocrisy of the situation, there is a profound human cost to these ideologies, of which the Kaisers are clear examples. In addition to depending on the visa system in order to legally exist within the world, the Kaisers’ entire reason for being born is tied up in capital, and it is because of that capital that they have been, without question, exposed time and again to violence, injury, and state-sanctioned punishment. These, along with poverty, desperation, and disenfranchisement, are the realities of living in a world that values resources, money, and power over human life. It seems these realities too are a human import to the stars.
It would be easy (and understandable considering Fortuna is the first in a planned trilogy) to leave the siblings at an impasse, each of them drowning in the arrested development that’s plagued their family under Auriga’s guardianship, with galactic holocaust looming and no hopeful alternative in sight.
But Scorpia Kaiser cares too much, and against all odds the Kaiser children are more than the sum of their mother’s cruelty. So the narrative asks instead, “What if empathy can save the world?”
It is in this moment that the book shows its hand, and justifies its hefty page count as it moves into its final act by asking its characters and institutions to embrace their own humanity. In the face of impossible odds, the Kaisers finally realize that the old way of doing things won’t cut it. The status quo has changed, the past isn’t coming back and the future is uncertain. The rules you thought governed your life might not be so iron-clad after all. What Scorpia, Corvus, and, in truth, the entire solar system are beginning to recognize is that they are not alone in the universe, and that the step you thought you couldn’t reach is closer when someone is giving you a leg up. It is through that recognition that Corvus is able to finally come back to his family, and Scorpia can become a true leader.
While much of Fortuna’s back half relies on some staggering luck and a heaping dose of good faith, it doesn’t make the race to the finish any less exciting, or the message any less potent. Merbeth has laid the necessary foundations so fluidly throughout the story that, by the time the cast has their “big damn heroes” moment, it feels earned, organic, and satisfying, while still leaving enough questions unanswered and depths unplumbed for future books to tackle.
Fortuna, at its core, is a family portrait in the midst of being repainted. Scorpia, Corvus, and their siblings are handed the reins to their own destinies without a clue how to steer. But the choice is now theirs, and ultimately it will be those choices, and their bonds to each other and everyone else in the galaxy, that will shape the future in which they’re about to find themselves.
Scorpia loves her siblings, that much is obvious. But what seems to keep sticking in her craw, and what makes her all the more captivating as a protagonist, is the fact that against her better judgement she also loves people. Try as she might, she cannot stop believing in the value of humanity, a value that she herself has been frequently denied as a spaceborn outsider. She understands, albeit begrudgingly, that at the end of the day we need each other to survive. Perhaps this is not a new concept, especially for science fiction, but Merbeth makes the case that it is a necessary one no matter where in the universe you are.